THE BLOG
10/12/2011 09:03 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2011

How to Keep Negativity at Arm's Length

What if we stopped fighting against people and situations we perceive as our enemies. What if we accepted them exactly as they are and as having the right to exist? What if we invested our energy in living, doing and being the change we want, rather than depleting our energy fighting against what is present?

I have spent much of my life fighting windmills, telling myself it shouldn't be this way. With 20/20 hindsight and having gained a bit of wisdom here and there, I now see the image of myself flailing my arms against my perceived adversary; who with a hand on my head, held me just beyond my arm's length. Even at the age of 16, I wrote a poem about raging at reality, wanting to be free. I perceived my entrapment and desired freedom to lie out there. I wanted to change the world -- to make it a kinder, more caring place for all people. But really, I wanted the world to be kinder and more caring towards me. I wanted other people to change their behavior so I could suffer less. It took time for me to realize that my freedom awaited me inside my own heart and mind.

Sometimes the public and private situations we most abhor are actually serving us. They cleanse and balance out past actions; they bring to awareness the undesirable consequences we overlooked while making past choices. When we misinterpret actions and motivations -- our own and those of others -- it is easy to romanticize or personalize what has happened; we create idealistic justifications for our reactions that, in fact, may not be justified at all.

Now that I am older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I see things very differently. I have discovered that when I fight against something, I attach my energy to the very thing I want to change. I am learning to use disturbances as motivators to create, promote and allow more of what I do want in my life and the world at large. Thus, instead of being against something, I am for something else.

Here's a great example. A client of mine, now in her 60's, has been deeply disturbed all her life by her older sister's disdainful treatment of her. My client has tried all sorts of strategies for bridging the gap between them, driven by her belief that the status quo is wrong and, albeit, unhealthy and needs to be fixed.

From my client's point of view, it shouldn't be this way. She thinks her sister should be loving and kind to her, and that they should have a healthy relationship. I appreciate her idealistic vision. However, whether consciously or unconsciously, her sister is choosing to stand in critical opposition toward my client, and that is her prerogative.

For the most part, we don't have laws against emotional tyranny, which runs rampant in many families and other relationships. So, it is up to each of us to do our best to look after our own best interest.

In my client's case, she finally triumphed over her own emotional duress by stepping out of the line of fire. How? She stepped out of the belief that her relationship with her sister should be any different than it is. This allowed her to see that her pain was a result of her own expectations that the situation should be different, rather than from anything her sister was doing or not doing.

They saw each other recently for the first time in five years. As always, her sister, surrounded by an entourage of her immediate family, shunned and avoided my client. But for the first time, my client stopped making her sister wrong and instead accepted her sister's right to behave as she chose. She focused her own attention on making choices about how to take care of herself in this encounter. She did so by having an inner dialogue about forgiveness for herself, her sister and their not being able to have a healthy relationship.

When judgments against her sister came up in her own mind, she refuted them, reminding herself that her sister gets to choose her own behavior. Instead of keeping track of everything her sister did and did not do, she chose to be as authentic as possible. She chose not to avoid them, but rather to be present at the gathering. As a result, she had a good time visiting with other people who were delighted to see her. It's all a matter of where we place our attention.

When we surrender our attitude of againstness, we can focus instead on being and doing the best we can in all the situations in our lives. This way we have a far better chance of staying present in our authentic selves, fully participating in, and learning from, our life experiences.

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